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‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’: Johnny Marr explains how to write a classic song in one afternoon
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The Smiths
Johnny Marr
‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’: Johnny Marr explains how to write a classic song in one afternoon

Johnny Fuckin’ Marr

Johnny Marr is the antithesis of a stereotypical hard rock or heavy metal guitarist. He is associated with unforgettable riffs but not endless guitar solos, whether as a solo artist, band member in The Smiths, The The, or Electronic, or as a session player for The Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Bryan Ferry or Modest Mouse.

Johnny was not camp and didn’t thrash around on stage like an attention whore but he was often quietly the center of attention anyway, regardless of what Morrissey was doing. Not only was he an amazing, awe-inspiring, seemingly effortless player, he always dressed stylishly.

It’s hard to sum up his style without using descriptors like “elegant” and “jangly” and “English.” His playing is similar to The Pretenders’ late, great James Honeyman-Scott’s and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, with maybe some Johnny Thunders thrown in. His eclectic influences include, among others, T. Rex, Motown, Nile Rodgers, Bert Jansch, Rory Gallagher, and The Stooges’ James Williamson. He told Pitchfork:

I was pretty young when I bought my first record — nine, I think. I got “Jeepster” by T.Rex on a 45rpm 7”. It was a cool start and the band were my first love, but the truth is I got it because the label had a great photo of Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn on it, so I was snagged by that. I was really into the pop singles of the day, which were all the U.K. glam stuff: Roxy Music, Bowie, the Sweet, everything…

I got into Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges because a friend of mine who was a little older, Billy Duffy, now of the Cult, heard me playing a riff I’d written, and he kept saying that it sounded like James Williamson from the Stooges, who I had never heard. There were quite a few guys in my neighborhood who played guitar and hung out together, sort of competitive, but a very healthy scene. I was one of about five or six teenage boys, and we all had our own thing. One guy was really into Neil Young, another was into Nils Lofgren, another Pete Townshend and [Free’s] Paul Kossoff, and I was into Rory Gallagher, and then I discovered Johnny Thunders in a big way.

Marr used to appear to dislike doing interviews. I remember two dullard American journalists for Creem and Spin who just did not get Morrissey and Marr’s Mancunian sarcasm and humor. Marr would wear cool sunglasses and fabulous threads and let Morrissey do most of the talking, creating an aura of mysteriousness as well as Jimmy Page ever did. But these days, especially promoting his excellent first solo album The Messenger (the one we’ve waited for for a few decades) he is wonderfully open and chatty.

Above, NME’s 2013 Godlike Genius Award winner Johnny Marr recently told NME about the guitar he conned Sire Records’s head honcho Seymour Stein into buying for him in New York—a cherry red Gibson ES-355—and how he wrote The Smiths classics “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Girl Afraid” on it in a single afternoon:

Bonus clip: Johnny Marr makes a cameo appearance on ‘Portlandia’

Posted by Kimberly J. Bright
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